Puerto Vallarta is a touristy town-- there's not much way around that fact. But it is, importantly, a town. This isn't a flock of resorts clustered on the beach just for the service of American tourists-- it's a real community with a history and a life of its own. This has its benefits. Instead of being at the mercy of resort buffets or toned-down taco bars, we were able to sample the flavors of the city. There were informal lunch counters, open-air asada grills, and sidewalk empanada sellers all tempting us. And when I saw this taco stand, it's wooden counters crowded with lunch-time diners, I knew I had to try it.
We arrived just at the right time, and squeezed up to the crowded counter as some satisfied customers left. Glancing over the hand written menu dangling above the stewed meats, we placed our order. While waiting for our food, we eyed the clutter of condiments that decorated the counter. As we lifted the ladel out of a plastic bin filled with a deep black-red salsa, the chef caught my eye. 'Careful,' she urged me gently in spanish, 'take just a little. It's spicy.' Oh, that's ok! I assured here-- I love spicy food. She shrugged a polite smile, and reached under the counter, producing a two-inch roasted jalapeno that she rested on my plate with a devious wink. The joke was more visual than anything else, of course-- the biggest chillies aren't generally the spiciest. But to play along, I thanked her and bit in. The skin of the chili was blackened slightly, soft and crinkled as crepe. It left a deep smokey flavor on my tongue with the first bite, which slowly gave way to a green spicy bite. Not too hot, but delicious-- it was a first course that left me with high expectations.
Thankfully, the food itself was just as flavorful. My flimsy paper plate arrived in front of me crowded with food, two corn tortillas browned on the grill and piled with chopped meat, onions, beans, and cilantro. I bit into the taco de birria first, the tender stewed mutton immediately bleeding a savory flavor of roasted peppers. Next I tried the tripas, which I had been curious to try since I landed in Mexico. Upon ordering it, our chef had spread it onto the grill, where it popped and sizzled for a few minutes before she scooped it into the palm of the tortilla. It gave the meat a slightly crunchy exterior that suprised me, and a rich griddled flavor that surprised me even more. I was lucky to have ordered it when I did-- as we sat there munching contentedly, several hopeful diners stopped by to order the tripas, and were informed that I had gotten the last order. Yup, just in time.